Every once in a while you will hear someone say “There hasn’t been a successful terrorist attack inside of the United States since 9/11/2001” or words to that affect. Usually it’s in defense of the Bush administration and their spastic counter-terror (CT) policies in both foreign and domestic application. Guess what? That has as much to do with Al Qaeda (and other terror groups) and their in ability to mount an organized strike within the US as it does with anything the government has done to stop them. First off, to be fair, Al Qaeda fucked up by attacking the US before it had firmly established outposts in the South Pacific, North Africa, Central and South America in which to train and stage future attacks. They assumed that either the US wouldn’t attack Afghanistan or that America would suffer the same fate that the Soviets did in that God forsaken land. No, I don’t know why. Okay, I sort of do; ideologues tend to over-estimate their own abilities and under-estimate their enemy’s will and prowess. Usama bin Laden is a snob who thinks that his crap emits no odor, a typical rich kid turned revolutionary to which we should be thankful because had he and his crew been smart they could have seriously checkmated the United States.
No, I’m not going to outline how. Whose side are you on?
Besides, this is about how the United States has spent a ton of money on Homeland Security but in the key positions (the FBI and CIA) little has changed, not about Al Qaeda.
The first big clue as to things not being right (outside of the invasion of Iraq) came in a June 20, 2005 New York Times article by David Johnson quoting a 15-page letter to three US Senators a lack of detailed understanding of terrorism by past and current FBI counter-terror officials.
“In a 15-page letter, the lawyer, Stephen M. Kohn, wrote that the F.B.I.'s top counterterrorism officials said in sworn depositions that they did not know the relationship between Al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah, a South Asia offshoot of the terror network. Nor were they aware of the link between Osama bin Laden and Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, a spiritual adviser to Mr. bin Laden with whom he had been associated since the 1980's.”
The article then goes on to explain that in spite of 9/11, the FBI doesn’t see experience in counter terrorism as the top qualification to lead their CT department. This is like an NFL team hiring a head coach that has no experience in football. There had been other stories too, stories about the FBI still being too slow to hire Arab linguists and even firing the ones that they had and stories about how the majority of FBI agents still not having access to the internet (where terrorists like Al Qaeda can be found with a few key-strokes. They’ll even answer your e-mail questions) but not hiring experienced CT professionals is the most telling as to the potential trouble the US can find itself in. 9/11 was as much a failure of the FBI as it was a successful terrorist operation. In-fighting between the FBI’s counter-terror desk (The FBI had both a Counter-Terror desk and a bin Laden desk. They didn’t speak to each other) and the CIA’s “Alec Station” (the special CIA unit tasked with tracking Al Qaeda and bin Laden) left gaps in information that both sides needed to get a clear picture of Al Qaeda’s activities inside of the US. It became a battle of egos as Michael Scheuer and John O’Neil as they argued over petty issues of procedure and jurisdiction. Things only got worse when the White House’s Richard Clark waded into the mix and things were so bad that Al Qaeda could have hijacked 20 planes that morning. It is clear that the FBI is more interested in protecting the status quo of it’s infrastructure than modernizing and retooling to meet the modern terrorist threat. They still see terrorism as a crime instead of an ideology and while terrorist share many common traits as criminals they tend to be better educated and highly driven to succeed.
The CIA is just not up to the task of CT, they are still tooled and structured to fight the Soviet Union. The prime example being the destruction of the video tapes showing interrogation of two Al Qaeda prisoners, the problem isn’t that they were destroyed (that was smart) but that they even recorded them in the first place (or that anybody outside of the prison even knew that the tapes existed). The CIA had such great success in Afghanistan in the 1980s, yet after the Soviets withdrew the CIA also turned away from that country as well as not even thinking to keep track of the various foreign Arab and Moslem fighters who’d come to kill Infidels. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and end of Communist rule in Russia the CIA under the Clinton Administration had turned to Industrial Espionage and using it’s abilities to steal contracts out from under European companies (Airbus for example) and giving US firms the edge during negotiations. The irony here is that the airlines almost went under after 9/11. After the Director of National Intelligence was established by Congress, the CIA’s reaction was predictable, four-year-old-girl-who-can’t-have-a-pony-like, lots of huffing and puffing with a list of excuses for non-performance. Adding insult and injury was the Bush Administration’s Deputy Secretary of State, Dick Armitage, leaking the name of Joe Wilson’s wife to a columnist and then the President himself laying the intelligence failure on Iraq squarely on the back of the CIA. In their defense, the CIA had been re-tasked in 1992 away from Iraq; they stripped the country of all but one American agent who also covered neighboring countries, and left the bulk of intelligence gathering to spy satellites and other technical assets. The Clinton Administration’s National Security Council (NSC) felt that Saddam Hussein made the perfect “Boogie Man” to entice investment in both Black Sea Oil futures and the new massive pipeline that was being built at the time. While technically Hussein was “Contained” he represented a threat to the region’s oil supply due to his unpredictable nature and his admitted WMD stockpile. So bad (worthless) was our intelligence on Iraq, during the initial days of the 2003 invasion US Army units ran head-long into Republican Guard tank divisions that they had no idea were in front of them. Thankfully they were no match for American armor and they were quickly dispatched. Some of this was due to what the CIA felt was a rush into war, they had an entire warehouse of captured Iraqi documents from the first Gulf War that they had never translated and they ere being pushed by both the White House and Congress, the latter rushing the vote to authorize force against Iraq even faster than even Bush had desired. While the Republican Guard targeting information isn’t the CIA’s direct responsibility that incident underscored the extent that we were blind in Iraq and it reflects the black hole that encompassed our knowledge about the strategic goings on of the Baath Party.
I once asked a gentleman who had served with the US Army Special Forces in Vietnam and then as a field agent with the CIA what needed to be done to fix his former employer. He replied without hesitation: “Fire everyone at CIA and close it down”.
The NSA is just overwhelmed and vexed. Tasked with the intercept of foreign communication signals (Telephone, radio, government and military communication), the NSA was trying to keep up with the explosion of international cell phone use before 9/11, but since the attacks the NSA has been strained in it’s mission to keep and eye on the various bad guys around the world while trying to add protocols for the new targets in Central Asia and North and Central Africa. 9/11 even caught the NSA flat-footed although it was the NSA that issued the lone advanced warning of Al Qaeda’s plans to hijack commercial airliners in August of 2001. They just didn’t know where the planes would be hijacked, so the warning was issued through the State Department as a warning for Americans traveling overseas. The revelation of domestic “Wire Tapping” has contributed to their vexed feelings as domestic eavesdropping is not something that the NSA does. Their massive antenna point outwards and to intercept inside of the United States would require a number of logistical steps and a mountain of legal hurdles that the NSA just was not equipped to initiate. Worse, when the story about “Warrentless Wire-Taps” was leaked, the key agency involved, the only agency that had legal permission to eavesdrop within the United States and the agency that leaned on the NSA to fudge the Constitution was never named. This is because the same agency probably leaked the story to the NY Times in the first place. I won’t play games, it’s the FBI is the only agency that can spy inside of the United States but they don’t have the kind of equipment to monitor on the scale that the NSA does, so the NSA was enlisted against their will and then when the FBI found out the size of the NSA’s net they closed up shop and ran to their source at the Times. So the NSA finds its reputation needlessly tarnished because the FBI, once again, didn’t know what it was doing and eavesdropping occurred in a way that didn’t have to happen. Then the FBI points its fickle finger at the NSA and the NSA is left hanging because the NSA just doesn’t discuss what it does or what it doesn’t do outside of secret Congressional hearings – period. The tragedy here is that the NSA is probably the best suited to track terrorists and the NSA is a key player in tracing their various recruiting and financial networks. The problem is that a number of stories in the news have revealed some to the NSA’s capabilities and folks like Al Qaeda went dark. They now use curriers, men with written or oral messages, who travel directly between cells so that no phone calls or e-mails can be intercepted. So even after 9/11, the FBI is still making enemies inside of the intelligence community.
The Director of National Intelligence has just made things even worse; who does the President call in an emergency? In a time when a clear line of communication is needed the Government has chosen to make a complex machine that barely works even more complex still. The 9/11 Commission was the generator of this bad idea, they were hailed as the gold-standard as to what was wrong inside of the intelligence community but they were the third commission to make recommendations for changes in the US intelligence services, the other two were in the 1990s and there have been as many as forty before those. The CIA and the Pentagon have been at each other’s throats since Vietnam and that rivalry has only gotten worse. The Pentagon pushed hard after 9/11 to be given its own intelligence agency, and was rewarded with one in 2002. So the CIA has just engaged in one giant hissy-fit ever since then. To make matter worse for the CIA, the military has been successful in rolling up Al Qaeda, Syrian and Iranian insurgencies between 2006 and 2008. They were able to do this thanks to a number of factors but primary amongst them was good old fashioned detective work. Since the surge of 2007, new Al Qaeda cells are shut down as soon as they appear. Yet this is great if you’re in Iraq, not so great if you’re trying to get out. It is unclear if the Pentagon’s intelligence agency has the ability to see big-picture trends and it’s likely that they don’t share their intelligence with their civilian counterparts. The events of 9/11 were made possible because of loop-holes and sloppy government practices that extended well beyond the DoD and Intelligence services, issues such as expired student visas and the specter of racial profiling that kept airport security from listening to their hunches. None of these problems have been addressed, a few years back the government issued a student visa to Mohamed Atta, the man who had flown the American Airlines 767 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center a few years before.
The United States needs to grow up, we can have a robust counter-terror strategy that is effective and doesn’t violate the Constitution. Just by giving the various agencies that already do exist the recourses to do their jobs (money, equipment and properly trained personnel) Americans could sleep well knowing that they’re as safe as possible.